Confirmation Is Not Permission
As an ardent supporter of the anti-spam movement, I couldn't be happier. The ball is finally moving down the field, and the people who count are finally talking about the responsibilities marketers have when it comes to marketing via e-mail. There is only one problem. They aren't talking about the right stuff.
With all the media coverage of the Harris Interactive lawsuit against the Mail Abuse Prevention System, the debate about permission has focused on MAPS' insistence on using closed-loop confirmation for permission e-mail sign-ups. This simply means that after a user signs up for a permission list, that user gets an e-mail asking him to confirm his sign-up with a positive action like clicking on a hyperlink.
Now, closed-loop confirmation is a good idea and I support the efforts of MAPS to protect consumers by promoting the practice. But let's all be clear about what exactly closed-loop confirmation does. It prevents forged sign-ups for opt-in services. Whether this forgery problem is systemic is still a matter of debate, but preventing it is a noble goal.
What this procedure doesn't address is the issue of how a Web site or marketer gains permission in the first place. There is no procedure, no technological solution to deceptive marketing practices that con a Web user into giving his permission. That responsibility falls directly on the marketers themselves and should be taken very seriously.
For example, an e-commerce company offering career advancement services approached me about marketing its Web site. "We are 100 percent permission," the company said. So I looked through its site and decided to give it a test run.
First, the site bombarded me with "opportunities" to sign up for a wide variety of marketing programs. At nearly every step, I was forced to either click the "No, I don't want to be in this program" box or I had to unclick the pre-checked box that would automatically enroll me in a program. When all was said and done, I had said no eight different times in three or four different ways.
A little later that day I got an e-mail confirming my registration at this Web site. I confirmed because I had registered and it said it was 100 percent permission, so this only made sense. And just guess what happened.
The next day I got a promotional e-mail from this Web site.
I've been in marketing for quite a few years, I'm not some Internet newbie who just fell off the cyber-turnip truck, but even I got caught in its "confirmed" opt-in marketing program.
The point is this Web site was using a closed-loop confirmation procedure, but it didn't really have my permission, and permission is the name of the game. And that is the downside to focusing exclusively on the confirmation procedure when discussing what it means to have permission. It is perhaps more important to focus on how to educate the potential subscriber as to exactly what he is signing up for, that is the true nature of permission marketing.
Unfortunately, as more and more marketers discover that registration levels are lower when you use this type of confirmation procedure, the pressure to adopt questionable permission tactics could increase. More and more programs could begin to try hiding the true intent of a Web site or marketing program when gaining permission.
Whether you use a confirmation procedure, pre-checked boxes thrown up on registration pages for Web-based services are not an appropriate way of getting permission. Neither is hiding an e-mail marketing program in the terms of service buried on some obscure page on a Web site. These are still deceptive practices that focus on getting a person registered in a program based on his inability to properly say no, not on his willingness to say yes.
When we as an industry talk about the ethics of e-mail marketing, it's important to remember that protecting the customer from forgery isn't the same as getting permission. You still have an obligation to be honest and upfront about what you are giving your subscribers and how they can make it stop. Anything less is obviously dishonest, dangerous for your clients and bad for the permission marketing industry as a whole.
So when you are planning a permission-based marketing program, remember that confirmed opt-in isn't the final answer; it is just a tool that can help a marketer protect itself and its users. Using it does not relieve any marketer of its responsibility to be open and honest about its program, it merely adds a level of protection for you and your customers.
• Ian D. Oxman is president of ChooseYourMail.com, Chicago. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.